HAMBURG, Germany – Mazen, 25, was walking in downtown Raqqa when the sound of a loudspeaker crackled above the noises of the city.
“Head toward the National Hospital to identify the bodies there,” a voice boomed in formal Arabic, echoing from a nearby mosque’s tower. “There are 28 bodies.”
Mazen found himself walking toward the hospital with a crowd of Raqqa residents, unsure what to expect. Once inside, however, he recognized the body of his 17-year-old cousin, Mustafa, with a bullet wound in his neck.
In shock, Mazen took the body, got into a taxi and went to a relative’s house near the city’s graveyard. There, he called Mustafa’s father, Al-Mu’tasim Khalaf.
It was January 10, 2014, and Mustafa had gone missing a few days before. Khalaf had no idea that his son was among the 28 prisoners taken earlier that month by the burgeoning armed group in the city, the so-called Islamic State.
Over the past two years, Khalaf and his wife, Tamadur al-Muhawish, had kept their distance from the different armed groups that found footholds in their city. A father of three sons and seven daughters, Khalaf sold agricultural tools for a living. The family had supported the initial peaceful demonstrations against the longstanding government of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but did not affiliate with the armed opposition groups that sprang up after the government violently cracked down on protesters.
In late 2013, fighters from ISIS began to infiltrate Raqqa, targeting anyone who refused to pledge allegiance to their self-proclaimed caliphate. Militants, dressed in black from head to toe, would crucify fighters from armed opposition groups, leaving their corpses on public display for days.
They were quickly becoming a formidable force, and in January 2014, ISIS militants arrested 28 young men, all between the ages of 16 and 21. Armed opposition factions arrested a number of the militants in retaliation, and eventually the two parties agreed on a prisoner exchange. But ISIS never held up their end of the deal.
“I did not believe my cousin when he told me,” said Khalaf. “My son had done nothing wrong. All he wanted was freedom.”
Mustafa was a high school student when the anti-government demonstrations began in 2011 and had rushed to the streets to protest with his friends. Later, he became frustrated with the Islamic State’s increasing presence in the city, his father said, feeling the uprising had been hijacked. Khalaf thinks his son was killed for his anti-Islamic State beliefs.
“For three months after his death, I was not able to sleep,” said Khalaf.
During those three months, ISIS threatened the grieving family to either pledge allegiance to the group or be arrested as “infidels.” To save their lives, the Khalaf family decided to leave the country. They fled Raqqa for Turkey on April 15, 2014 – just two and a half months before ISIS took total control of Raqqa. Mazen, the cousin who had found Mustafa’s body, was detained shortly afterward and is still missing today.
Moving between cities in southern Turkey, the Khalaf family struggled to make ends meet. A few of the daughters found work tailoring clothes, but their income was not enough to survive and their savings were running out.
By the summer of 2015, Khalaf had decided to leave for Europe, taking his three oldest children with him. Not having the money needed to smuggle the entire family at once, his wife Tamadur and the family’s youngest six daughters stayed behind in Turkey.
Khalaf and his eldest children arrived in Germany in July 2015 and applied for asylum. Worried that reunification applications would take a long time, as European laws continued to change with the steady influx of refugees, Khalaf asked a cousin who was still in Syria to sell a piece of their family land. He sent the money to Tamadur, hoping the rest of the family would be able to join them in Germany using the same smuggling route.
Tamadur and the girls set off from the Turkish coastal city of Izmir on January 27, 2016, crossing the Aegean Sea in a rubber dinghy. Following their registration at the Greek island of Lesbos, they headed north toward the Macedonian border.
But Macedonia was starting to clamp down on its borders, leaving Tamadur and the girls stranded with thousands of other refugees in the unofficial refugee camp of Idomeni, Greece. Near an abandoned train station on the Greek border with Macedonia, Tamadur and the girls lived in a tent for an entire, freezing month.
“Every time I talked to them, they were scared or sick,” said Khalaf.
Tamadur and her daughters were registered with a United Nations program that allowed 200 people to cross the border every day, but by the time their turn came, Macedonian authorities canceled the agreement. On March 9, Macedonia sealed its border completely.
The family has been separated for 18 months now. Tamadur and the six youngest daughters are stuck in Athens, seven of the 57,000 refugees currently trapped in Greece as a result of Europe’s crackdown on the influx of displaced people.
“I thought that by leaving Syria, I might start over and stop constantly thinking of Mustafa,” Tamadur told Syria Deeply. “But every time [my children] ask me about their father, I break into tears because I do not have an answer for them.”
Khalaf sends a portion of his monthly stipend to Tamadur, who is staying at a friend’s house. Tamadur said she had not received any humanitarian aid and urgently needs medical attention for her thyroiditis.
Khalaf and the oldest children have received their residency permits and are attending German-language courses. The application for family reunification is pending, and the family’s only means of communication is through phone messaging services like Viber and WhatsApp.
“Now all we can do is wait,” said Khalaf.